Reliving a virtual past - Dennis Hamley
A few weeks ago I made a rather disturbing discovery. I was at first horrified and completely at a loss about what to do about it. Then it occurred to me that I needn't be horrified or at a loss because I'd stumbled on the true glory - and even justification for - Indie ebook publishing. I'd been given an opportunity I'd longed for whenever I had a conventional book published, but which I knew I'd never get however many reprints it went through. It's still a pain in the bum though.
During the Edebook festival in August I'd spent some time launching my latest ebook, Out of the Mouths of Babes. As I said in a previous blog, the book was originally published in 1997. I knew even then that the ending was rather arbitrary and posed many questions which only time and teasing the implications out of the plot could answer. Why didn't I try to follow them through there and then? Only now, as I recalled the original experience of writing it, did I realise that it wasn't not knowing what could happen but having a fair idea of it and being afraid to write it. The implications were very serious for the characters who were left standing at the end and I really didn't want to explore them.
So when I came back after years to reread Out of the Mouths of Babes I was alarmed to see that the ending I had provided meant absolutely nothing. It was a cop-out. Nothing was decided: everything was left up in the air. A good hook for a sequel perhaps? Not so. I'd felt that I'd worked this seam out. So I decided not to republish it. I was sorry about this because I thought the novel did have some merit. It took me a while to realise that if I wanted it to live again I would have to finish it properly - a completion of the plot, not a mere postscript as I'd provided with Spirit of the Place. The consequences of the novel's final situation must be looked at fearlessly - and they must be consequences in some sense inevitable both for two main characters and a third relatively minor character whose influence on the story is crucial. And the effect of these consequences must be extended up to the present day - and also projected further into the future because for one character their effect is permanent.
Now, in the rest of this blog, I shall have to be very careful of SPOILER ALERTS. Please don't get impatient with lots of nameless characters of uncertain gender. I'm trying to write about a process, not give a summary. The pictures are chosen to represent crucial events in the original story and the captions are direct quotations.
The watcher stood in the doorway until forced away by heat and fumes. Now the top of the brick wall marking the bottom boundary of the garden was the vantage point for watching satisfying orange flames eating away at the compact silhouette and the collapse of roof and beams...It was worth the risk waiting for the fire engine to arrive, so pleasantly and inevitably too late to save the little structure. But the real target had not been there. More fires must be lit another time.
So I spent much time pondering over how I would do it. The first chapter of the new extension was written quickly and - to my mind - satisfyingly. I was very sad about what I'd done in it to the character I liked best, the novel's shining beacon, and I think it was the consequence I'd considered sixteen years ago but was too afraid to write. But now I bit the bullet and did it and, even though the outcome was not a good one for the character, I was pleased with the chapter as a piece of writing and as a dramatisation of a psychological inevitability.
The second chapter was really quite a joy to write. I could make sense, both in terms of motive and personality, of an important character who'd played a big part in the novel's structure: a sort of fulcrum who, largely unwittingly, set a lot of its action in motion. In fact, I'll go further. That character is at the heart of the novel, almost an unseen puppeteer. And now I realised that this character was much deeper than I had thought. There were motives, circumstances, psychological depths there which I hadn't suspected. Writing that chapter really opened my eyes to my own previously half-formed creation. And, as a nice contrast to the previous chapter, it was a lightening of mood: almost, though by no means altogether, comic relief.
And then came the necessary, climactic third chapter. So difficult. It had to do a lot of things. It had to dramatise shock, rejection, remorse, punishment and purgatory , a period of cauterised detachment and withdrawal, a partial recovery and return to the world, a sort of redemption and then depiction of a flawed existence and the prospect that it would last through fifty years of a leftover life.
A big agenda. But I had a go at it. After three drafts for this last chapter, I thought I'd cracked it. So I published it. And that, I thought, was that.
I had one last look at the text in Preview and was as satisfied as I ever could be (which isn't actually very much, but that's a fate for all of us). I had the usual ghastly split-second premonition of disaster as I pressed Publish. But no, everything seemed fine. Another one bites the dust, I thought.
Getting a lift from a private motorist these days was almost impossible. Every hitchhiker was supposed to be a serial killer.The book was published on August 25th. Two weeks later I thought I'd give it a quick read through because I'd detected a couple of typos in the Word document from which it was uploaded. I found them both - and realised that there were more as well which had escaped both me and my copy-editor. I continued reading - to the end, to check again that the new Part 6 read like a seamless continuation and not just an add-on.
So he stood under a sodium lamp just where trucks came out of the lorry park onto the slip road. For some time he was still ignored.But, just as he thought his ears would be full of the throb of diesel engines for ever, his luck changed. An older, smaller lorry, belching black fumes, lucky to be still on the road, stopped. He opened the passenger door."OK, lad," said the driver, a man in his fifties with a grey, grizzled beard. "I'll take you some of the way. I know what it’s like waiting there."Gary got in, settled back in the worn seat and was soon lost in memory again.
And then I came to the last chapter - 28. And I read it.
AND IT WAS AWFUL.
I couldn't believe that I'd let something through which was so inept. On so many creative writing courses down the years I've been banging on about 'showing' not 'telling', and here was I perpetrating four thousand words of unrelieved 'telling.' I was reminded of a very dismissive review of one of my books, sadly in a fairly authoritative journal, which said,"This is only true because the author says it is."
This opinion, I thought, was mad, witless. I defy anybody to find anything in any novel ever written which isn't only true because the author says it is. That's what fiction is and authors are for. But when I read my new chapter, I suddenly realised exactly what the reviewer meant (though I'll fight to the death anyone who says it was right about the book being reviewed).
The agenda for this last chapter was indeed a big one. Perhaps it needed a whole book to work through it and not the few thousand words I'd allocated. What I wrote seemed all right at first but now I realised it was thin, inadequate and, worst of all, GLIB. To use the words of that long-ago reviewer, shock, rejection, withdrawal and redemption were only there because the author said they were.
So what to do about it? Well, rewrite and republish, of course. But first I had to empathise with the remaining characters during the first few hours after the original, violent ending in a way I hadn't before. One is dead, another has beaten a hasty retreat and now I knew that in 1997 I was running away alongside that character because my instinct was to get the hell out of there as well. And when I came to revisiting this crucial period and see it from the inside as a virtual experience - I realised how easy it had been to gloss over it, to make it true just because I said it was.
Well, as I write this blog now on October 4th, ten days before it will appear, I've just about finished reliving and rewriting those first hours and I feel as exhausted virtually as the characters did actually. Or do I mean fictionally? So I'll keep a daily log of my progress and perhaps by the 14th - well, no, the 11th because we're going away for the weekend and leaving the computer behind - I'll have finished. But don't bet on it.
Julian, glass in hand, watched her. Then he looked out of the window and saw long evening shadows darken the mellow stone of Merton Street, thought of the changelessness of certainties and felt peace, a welling pleasure and anticipation for all that he could expect in his life.
I estimate that the future last chapter of this novel will not be Chapter 28 but Chapter 30. Three for one. Not even Tesco, Walmart or Lidl are as generous as that.
October 6th. I think it may be all right. I've dealt with shock and remorse. Purgatory, punishment and cauterised detachment next and then it's only recovery and return, redemption and flawed existence to do. No sweat. (I don't mean to sound glib again but sometimes that's what writing makes you feel.)
October 7th. Just entering purgatory. I'm glad I'm not really there.
October 8th. I've finished the first movement of the process. I think and hope it's psychologically sound.
October 10th. I know now that I won't have finished before this blog appears. But I'm into the last chapter, the finishing straight. It should be chapter 30 but even now I'm wondering whether there won't be too much in it for just one chapter. If so, the book may end up with an odd, asymmetric number of chapters. 31 doesn't sound right somehow.
Is this going to work? I hope so. But I've done all I can for now. Has it been a worthwhile exercise? Well, of course. Any act of self-criticism is worthwhile. If we can't be rational and detached about our own writing, how can we be about other people's? One thing is certain. I've been reminded that you can never rush anything in writing. Deadlines, especially self-imposed ones, may be a spur to action but they're sure not a guarantee of quality.
Tomorrow we leave early. I shall print out what I've done, take it with me and mull over it in any spare moments during the weekend. And on Tuesday I shall be back at it and aim to republish no later than October 20th.
AND: if anyone who has bought the first ebook version wants me to, let me know and I will send you the new last chapters as a pdf. This will at least keep you going until we find that something which I'm told is true proves to be - that buyers of a first version can somehow get the new version free.